Oz the Great and Powerful, like The Wizard of Oz, begins in Kansas at the turn of the century. Oscar (James Franco) is a stage magician in a traveling circus act. Using the stage name, Oz, he puts on basic circus tent tricks with his assistant Frank (Zach Braff). The brief glimpse we get of Oscar actually putting on a show is fun, but the prologue contains a long scene where we get a hint of Oscar’s true ambition: charming and conning women into sleeping with him. Not a bad trick, and a little surprising for a family fun Disney flick. It adds to the character of Oscar, but seems incongruous to Oscar’s true ambition to be a great man, which he states a number of times, and will come back into play later on in the movie. It is noteworthy to mention that the Kansas scenes are shot in Academy 4:3 ratio and monochrome to connect this movie to the classic from 1939. There are a few other connections to The Wizard of Oz, the twister being one of them, which comes and rips Oscar and his hot air balloon off into the Magical World of Oz.
One of the most striking moments in the history of cinema is when Dorothy walks from her monochrome house into the wonderful Technicolor world of Oz. Raimi and his team try to recapture that moment when Oscar looks out over Oz, and the screen widens to a typical 2:35 wide-screen format and color floods the palate. If you choose to see the movie in 3D (and it is quite good) then this is when the 3D really takes over. It is present in the Kansas scenes, but once in Oz, things will come at the screen and create depth in the way that really exploits the possibilities of 3D.
The first person Oscar meets is Theodora (Mila Kunis) who immediately falls in love with him. She thinks he is the one to save Oz from the Wicked Witch who no one has seen but everyone knows about. The Wicked Witch poisoned the King, but prior to his death, he spoke of a prophecy that one day a great and powerful wizard with the name of Oz will come and defeat the Wicked Witch and reclaim the land. Theodora thinks that Oscar is the man to do just that and starts picking out China patterns. If only she had taken a moment to play twenty questions with Oscar, she could have saved herself (and two movies) worth of trouble. Oscar goes along with her, because he is a con man and that is in his nature, and because she is quite good-looking. Men have done more for less.
Along the way, Oscar and Theodora pick up a couple of tagalongs, a Flying Monkey voiced by Zach Braff and a little girl in the form of a China doll, voiced by Joey King. If these characters exist to tie the movie to the merry band of the 1939 film, it is a poor suggestion. I can’t help but think about how frustrated Franco must have felt acting opposite TWO digital characters. The foursome follow the Yellow Brick Road and find themselves back in Oz, where Theodora’s older sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) charges Oscar with a task to go and find the Wicked Witch and destroy her wand, killing her. The foursome hops back on the Yellow Brick Road in search of the Wicked Witch and end up in the Dark Forest. How do we know that it is called “The Dark Forest”? Because there is a signpost for it. I wonder, who built the Yellow Brick Road, and did they have any trouble when it came to the Dark Forest section? Was that a good part of town that fell into disarray? Does anyone maintain the Yellow Brick Road? I know infrastructure is key, but still…
They do find a Witch there, but she is far from wicked, she is Glinda (Michelle Williams) the other sister. At this point we know exactly how all this will play out because Glinda is dressed in all white and has pristine blonde hair. He two sisters are brunettes, so obviously they are evil. Glinda must also be afflicted with the same “love at first sight” sickness that plagues her sister, because once she lays eyes on Oscar, there is little doubt that she is in deep emotional love with him. Using a crystal ball, Theodora watches and grows angry and sad, which will eventually lead her into fully transforming into the Wicked Witch of the West that we all know and has at one point or another haunted our nightmares. Here is a problem that George Lucas ran into when he made the Star Wars prequels, evil really doesn’t need a back-story. In Star Wars, Darth Vader steps on to an all white stage dressed in all black. That is sufficient for us. He’s one bad man, and how he came to be that way is irrelevant. In fact, learning the back-story of Anakin Skywalker cum Darth Vader actually takes away the mystery of fear. Same with the Wicked Witch of the West, once the embodiment of evil, now, a woman scorned. I would love to quote Shakespeare here, but Theodora doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot to warrant any fury.
Glinda takes Oscar a town of Quaddlings, Tinkers, and Munchkins, all protected from anything wicked by a giant bubble. There she reveals to Oscar that she knows his secret, but needs his help to defeat the Wicked Witch and take back the Emerald City of Oz. The movie has many moments where it could very easily be about something, and one occurs when Glinda asks Oscar to help her make the people believe. Raimi shoots the townsfolk looking into the camera while Glinda’s dialog is treated in the voice-over. Raimi places us in Oscar’s point of view. Just look at all those sad and hopeful faces looking up to us? Those masses yearning to believe. Believe in what? In the power of cinema? In the power of storytelling? Movie making is the biggest con of them all, full of smoke and mirrors to the best degree, did the story suddenly become self-aware? If it did, it quickly dissipates back into plot, and Oscar and the Quaddling’s devise a plan to take back the Emerald City. Oscar enlists the help of Master Tinker (Bill Cobbs) to revamp a bunch of Thomas Edison inventions, again another allusion to cinema and the power of the moving image, and the two create a way to project Oscar as the Great and Powerful Oz.
Using Scarecrows and magic, the Quaddlings deal with the Flying Monkeys. Using some trickery, a little sleight of hand and a whole lot of smoke and mirrors, Oscar becomes Oz the Great and Powerful and defeats the Wicked Witches. Theodora takes off, presumable to sulk and bide her time, and Evanora and Glinda square off for a completely out-of-place battle that belongs in a Dragon Ball Z movie. During the fight, Glinda manages to grab Evanora’s special power gem (which has never been mentioned prior to this scene) and Evanora shrivels up in an old hag and is carried off by Flying Monkeys where she will also bide her time until a certain someone comes along and drops a house on her.
Oscar thanks his friends for the help, takes Glinda behind the curtain, lays a big wet one on her, and the movie ends. The end credits play with a series of curtains closing, once again leading us to believe that this might somehow have a connection to the world of cinema and story. Maybe there was a much larger thread that was excised as shooting and editing progressed and all that is left are some snippets and suggestions to something deeper. Or maybe those snippets were shoehorned in to make the movie sound at least somewhat profound or important. Disney has proven that it is fully capable of making complex and thoughtful movies that stand the test of time. It has also made some very superficial fare as well. Oz the Great and Powerful belongs to the latter company.
There is much missing from this movie that is due to legal reasons. MGM made The Wizard of Oz in 1939, which was then purchased by Warner Brothers, meaning that many elements were hands off to Disney. The memorable music of “Oh-we-oh” to the mole on the Wicked Witch’s chin, none of that could be used in this movie, and what was once a loveable musical, now only has one Munchkin song, and it is entirely forgettable. It’s a real shame and a terrible burden is placed on Raimi and his team to invoke memories of a movie when he can barely whisper it’s name.
L. Frank Baum wrote eighteen books about the world of Oz, and it is from this well that the screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire pull from. However, the arc of this movie involves a con man, a circus magician, a hack embracing who he is, and using his tricks, his smoke and mirrors to save the day. These are the very things the 1939 film mocked and tried to subvert. When the curtain was pulled back on the great and powerful Oz, he was a tired old man who Dorothy and the audience pitied. I wonder what happened between Oz and Glinda between the end of Oz the Great and Powerful and The Wizard of Oz, I imagine that Oz became drunk on his own power, ditched the beautiful and kind Glinda, and became a lonely and sad old man. That might not exactly follow the Disney formula, but it would have made for a much more interesting movie.